“Rowen, wake up! It’s morning!”
Rowen awoke with a start and fell off his bed. He groaned as the pain of falling spread through his body.
“Claire,” he grumbled, “It’s bad enough Milly wakes me up by shouting. I really don’t need someone else yelling at me this early in the day.”
Claire and Milly giggled from the doorway. After finishing their search yesterday, Milly and Rowen and secretly snuck the tired pixie into Milly’s room while Fred was busy raging over the adventurer’s conscription. The little pixie had stayed in Milly’s room to sleep off her exhaustion.
“Milly was right, you are a lazy bones in the morning!” Claire teased Rowen, “Compared to us, you really are dead weight!”
“What’s with all the necromancer puns this early in the morning?” Rowen groaned from the floor as he got up, “Save the jokes for after food.”
“We ate already though,” Milly said cheekily, “So hurry up ‘dead boy’ and get ready. Claire and I have the whole day planned! Hurry for break days!”
Maybe I should let myself respawn in the dungeon to get out of this, Rowen thought to himself as the girls disappeared from the entrance. I’m sure Doc would understand if I had a sudden, but fatal, accident involving the window.
After talking himself out of the respawn plan, Rowen pulled his leather clothes over his body and trudged downstairs for the morning meal. A nice hot wooden bowl of wheat porridge was waiting for him on the table, with Milly sitting in the opposite seat, her own bowl of porridge half-empty. Rowen sat himself down and began to eat.
“So,” he managed to say between bites, “Where’s Fred?”
Milly frowned, “Father has gone to protest at the noble gate, and then grab a job with the builders. He’s decided to only open for dinner until the adventurers come back. Something about saving copper.”
Claire poked her head out of Milly’s pocket, “Yeah, so that means you two have even more free time today to search for the culprit. This is good, because we have to solve this problem in three days.”
Rowen paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth. “Huh?” he asked carelessly as porridge ran off the wooden implement.
“Yeah,” Claire exclaimed excitedly, “Milly told me that the adventurers are going to be gone 4 days: one day to get there, two days to get what they need, and one day to get back. I need to be back in the dungeon where it’s safe by the time they get back, so three days.”
Rowen slurped down his spoonful of porridge before pointing it at the two girls, “Wouldn’t you think they’d need more days to retrieve . . . whatever it is they’re looking for? Come on, there is no way we can figure out the culprit in three days when the whole town has been flipped over by the guards already. Two barely apprentice mages and a dungeon pixie doesn’t really seem like an A-team for solving murders.”
“Really,” Milly chuckled, “So tell me how long the guards have known the culprit it a slime without a doubt?”
After thinking about it for a moment, Rowen shrugged and continued eating.
“Got me there,” he admitted, “but unless Claire has some prophecy magic in her petal skirt, I’m not sure we’ll be able to anticipate the next attack or track down the slime to its lair. After all, your earth memory magic is limited to a single area, right?”
“Nope, my fey blood is too diluted for clairvoyant magic; not that pixies or even fairies are even able to use that type of magic. We’d need a more feral and magical creature for that, like a naiad or a fortuna. Anyway,” Claire waved her hand dismissively, “that’s not the important part. What is important is that we solve this problem quickly; because if the guards confirm the culprit is a slime, they won’t consider the possibility that it’s from the wild. They’ll just assume Doc is going rogue and all those newly returned adventurers will dive into the dungeon to kill him. So, we need to solve this case in three days at least.”
Finishing off his meal by tilting the bowl to lips, Rowen thought inwardly. He used the wooden spoon to gather the last bit of porridge into his mouth.
“How about we try to figure out the common elements between the murders, and the formulate a list of possible next locations base on the facts,” he said finally as he placed the bowl back down onto the table, “We can think of everything we can here, and then go around Iron Town and ask people anything we don’t know. How about that?”
Milly and Claire gazed in wonder at Rowen.
“That’s an amazing plan Rowen! How’d you come up with it?” Milly asked in surprise.
Rowen puffed his chest out in pride, “As a prince, it was the duty of my tutor to teach me as much as they could about many things. A good prince must know all the facts of a case in order to administer a proper punishment to the criminal in custody.”
“Boo, he’s prideful again,” Claire stuck her tongue out, “Go back to being negative and grumpy; you’re less fun with a big head.”
Rowen immediately slouched over and glared at Claire. “Hey,” he thrust the spoon at her crossly, “You can’t expect a few months and weeks as a tavern boy to have replaced years of royal lessons and constant teachings do you? I’ll have you know I was the pride of the entire kingdom at one point!”
“Well, you’re nothing but a 11 year-old boy now, so start acting like one!” Claire glared right back at him, “You talk too much like an adult!”
“And you talk like a child!”
“I am a ch . . . I mean I’m an adult! I’m way older than you!”
“By years maybe, but not maturity!”
“I have all the maturity right here!” Claire said as she hefted her tiny, yet sizable, bosom at Rowen.
“Alright, that’s enough from both of you,” Milly admonished harshly, her own eyes twitching down at her own chest, which was . . . still growing, “We have a plan, so let’s stick to it and figure this whole mess out. Rowen, no more pride till we solve the case. Claire, no more of . . . well just stay happy and positive.”
“Okay!” Claire said cheerfully, “I can do that!”
“Whatever,” Rowen shrugged, “Well, what do we know about the murders?”
Milly raised her hand. “All the murders happened in Iron Town, in alleys, at sunset when there weren’t many people out walking around. Seven people have been killed in the last 2-ish weeks, with decreasing time between them. Um . . . we know a slime has been doing the killing?”
“That’s about what I know too,” Rowen agreed with her list, “So what questions does that leave us.”
“We know the how, the where for the most part, the when, and the what,” Claire offered, “But we still don’t know why and who yet. Nor do we know where the slime’s lair is at. We also know that this slime is significantly more cunning than a normal slime and is likely getting ready to split itself into more, just as cunning slimes.”
“So, rather than actually asking other people about what they know about the murders, it would be better to learn how to fight and track slimes,” Milly observed, “That can’t be too hard in town where everyone hunts slimes all the time right?”
Rowen shook his head, “No, the normal adventurers wouldn’t be able to help us even if they were here. There isn’t a need to ‘track’ slimes in the dungeon; they always attack adventurers. What we need is someone who has actual experience tracking slimes in the wild. Since the adventurers are all gone, then we’re looking for someone retired.”
“Alright, we have a plan!” Claire cheered, “Now, to Iron Town to ask old people questions!”
“This was a horrible idea!” Claire exclaimed, “Old people are meanies!”
Rowen and Milly, panting as they leaned over on an alley wall, couldn’t help but agree with her. After entering Iron Town, they had no luck with finding help with tracking a slime. Most former-adventurer looking men and women brushed them aside and ignored them as they continued hither and tither in their rush to complete their work.
Those were the nice ones, as a few laughed at the kids and then ignored them. The worst one yet had been an old man trying to steal a pie. Milly had scared the man into dropping the stolen pie, and they were subsequently chased through the streets by the very irate old thief.
“This is town is horrible for children!” Rowen gasped out between breaths, “I mean, I’ve never seen such blatant disregard and dislike. Geez, is this how it normally is?”
“I think,” Milly gasped, “they’ll all annoyed the adventurers are gone, and we’re easy targets. I didn’t recognize a single one as a tavern patron, otherwise I could have acted cute.”
“Couldn’t you have used your chosen magic on that thief?” Rowen complained, cracking his back, “You can use ‘charm’ right?”
“Yeah, and you could have thrown down an illusion or some other spell,” Milly shot back, “Why didn’t you?”
“No time, and too scared,” Rowen muttered, followed by an agreeing nod from Milly. As barely apprentice mages, it took them both time and a certain mindset to cast spells. Suffice to say, they were too weak to face against adults, let alone an old, crazy, pie-stealing beggar.
“Great, now where did we end up?” Rowen wondered as he peeked out the alley, “I don’t recognize this part of Iron Town.”
“Just walk toward the palisade,” Milly sighed, “we can use it as a guide back to Tent City. I don’t want to ask any more questions today.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Rowen agreed half-heartedly as the two began to trudge their way onto the route back home.”
“No!” Claire cried out, “That’ll only leave us with two days to solve the case! You both can’t give up now after we’ve come so far!”
“We only got this far by running from a crazy,” Rowen retorted, “My stomach is telling me it’s past lunch anyway. Let’s spend a little on food at least before heading back. We can ask questions while we go home.”
“Fine,” Claire muttered as she leaned out of Milly’s pocket carelessly. Milly stuffed Claire back in, ignoring her protests.
As the duo rounded the next corner, they came across a blacksmith shop. The main building was surrounded by a simple wooden wall with a large opening leading to a little house and open-walled shop. A sign was hanging right beside the opening.
“Huh, I don’t recognize the sign,” Rowen said curiously as he examined the shop’s symbol: a pair of crossed swords behind a scale.
“I do,” Milly said thoughtfully, “I think that’s the symbol on Adventurer Fiora’s sword. You remember, the red-haired one that’s really strong.”
“Her? Yeah I remember her. She was rather fetching wasn’t she?” Rowen nodded his head. Milly punched him, an annoyed look on her face as Rowen gave her a confused look.
“Really, let me see!” Claire’s voice popped up as she struggled to get her body out of Milly’s pocket. Upon freeing herself, she looked up at the sign. With a small yelp, she dived back inside and hid.
“Leave, hurry and leave!” Claire’s voice echoed in Milly and Rowen’s minds, “This is a bad place!”
“Why, what’s wrong?” Rowen asked, his hands preparing to cast spells.
“I’ve been here before, during a small dungeon requisition,” Claire explained, “The old man here is really mysterious. I think he was almost able to detect my presence, even though I was invisible! That must mean he’s strong and dangerous.”
“Did you say strong old man?” Milly’s eyes twinkled.
“No no no, no, no Milly,” Rowen said quickly, “That’s a bad thing. We need to leave. Milly? Ah!”
Milly had already started skipping inside, a crying Claire accompanying her. Rowen groaned, but chased after them.
“Wow, look at all the tools,” Milly commented as she took her time stating around the workshop, “Everything is so clean and orderly, it makes me think of a new shop.”
Rowen, who had caught up with her, shook his head and pointed at the anvil,. “It looks like that, but you can clearly see the burn marks and dents here,” he noted, “Those tools also looks well-used. Come on Milly, let’s go before we mess something up. Anyone this organized would not appreciate it if we disturbed their system.”
“Let’s knock on the door at least,” Milly begged, “I mean, we have been asking old people about slimes all day, so how is this any different?”
“Well, because Claire is hiding and crying in your pocket,” Rowen pointed out.
“She’ll be fine,” Milly disagreed, “As long as she stays quiet and hidden, I’m sure the old guy won’t notice her. It’s my turn anyway; your turn got us chased here.”
“Alright fine,” Rowen relented, “but let’s try to be civil. If he has a pie, we leave.”
Milly led Rowen over to the door of the small house and knocked. The door opened a few moments later, revealing a kind-looking old man with a long white beard.
“Hmm, the tempering seems to be going quite nicely,” the old man muttered as he stared at the two children.
“He looks nice!” Milly whispered to Rowen.
Rowen coughed, “Ahem, sorry to disturb you sir, but we were wondering if we could ask you some slime related questions? Uh, it’s part of our assignment for adventurer class.”
The old man stroked his beard, “Slime related questions you say? Hm, well I might know a thing or two. I need to do some more work though, so why don’t you follow me to the forge and ask your questions while I work. I promise the forge won’t bite.”
He winked at them, causing Milly to giggle and Rowen to hold back a grimace. The two teens walked with the old man back to the forge, where upon arrival the old man grabbed a few pieces of wood and placed them in the furnace.
“Young man, do you mind pumping that lever,” the old man asked, “I need to start the fire again.”
“Sure,” Rowen agreed. He walked over to the lever on the right side of the furnace and began to raise and lower it. Wind began to flow into the furnace, and soon the coals ignited the wood into a new fire.
“Perfect, thank-you young man,” The old man said with a smile as he stroked the fire, occasionally adding more wood, “While I’m working the flames, why don’t you ask your first question?”
“Do you know how to track a wild slime?” Milly asked. Rowen inwardly winced at the bluntness of the question.
“Hmm,” The old man seemed to be thinking as he added a few more pieces of wood, “Tracking a wild slime? Not a normal thing to do, is it? That’s a rather difficult task left to experienced adventurers; why would young ingots like yourselves be trying to learn this I wonder?”
“It’s part of our class assignment,” Rowen repeated.
The old man raised an incredulous eyebrow, “Somehow, I don’t expect a complicated question like that would be tasked to younglings like you. Now why would you really ask this I wonder?”
“To track a slime,” Milly piped up, “we want to find one!”
The old man appeared startled for a moment, freezing in place. A moment later, he began to joyfully laugh. It was a very pleasant laugh, filled with a deep voice that was very comforting. He wiped a tear out of his eye.
“You ask about tracking a slime because you want to track a slime? Oh ho ho, isn’t that that the best answer I’ve heard in years,” the old man chortled.
Milly ‘humphed’ and put her hands on her hips. “Hey, are you making fun of me?” she asked irately. Rowen decided to let this odd conversation continue without his input.
“No my dear, I am not making fun of you,” the old man apologized, “I’m sorry, but I’m rather used now to people hiding their true intentions behind words. Adults rarely do what they intend you see, and many intend to do things that never happen. As a blacksmith, my job is to create things the customer needs, but often times they aren’t aware of their own desires. I must hammer and mold their minds until they themselves gain the enlightenment to see what they require.”
“Well, I want to know how to track a slime,” Milly declared, “Can you help me?”
The old man grinned at Milly, “Sure, but I need to know your name young one. No sense working with someone nameless.”
“I’m Milly, and this is Rowen,” she declared, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Olaf young Milly,” Olaf revealed, “And for giving me fresh laughter that I haven’t felt in years, please allow me to assist you in your quest.”
Olaf picked up a pair of tongs and lifted a piece of iron. He placed in into the hot furnace. “Hire a hunting beast, one trained to follow magic,” he advised, “Give it a piece left behind, and follow it to your quarry. Don’t expect a tracking beast to be good for battle, however. The best hunting beasts are reared by the elves and can be found in the elvin district.
“Thanks!” Milly said cheerfully.
“Excuse me,” Rowen entered the conversation, “but why help us and answer our question so easily after pointing out its difficulty? What are your intentions?”
Olaf gave Rowen a serious, considering look. He removed the hot metal and began to hammer it, forcing Rowen and Milly to back up as the sparks flew. “Hmm, yes; you haven’t gone through the right tempering yet. Little Rowen, you have lost your ability to trust others.”
“He’s been through a lot Olaf!” Milly argued as Rowen’s face turned pale, “After losing his family and home, he’s just a little lost. As his best friend, I’m here to help him back on the right path!”
“Really? But what if whatever he needs requires something you cannot give him?” Olaf asked as he returned the iron to the forge, “What if he needed the help from someone else, say a girl his age?”
Milly’s eyes turned dangerous; a red glow began to filet through her pupils. Two throwing daggers appeared in her hands, their metal glowing red under the light of the fire.
“He doesn’t need anyone else,” Milly said coldly, “I will be enough. I can protect him.”
Seeing the daggers caused Rowen to move toward her, but he stopped when Olaf held up his hand.
“There is no danger here young Rowen,” Olaf smiled softly, “only desire. Desire on its own cannot spark action.”
“But,” Olaf gave Milly a serious frown,” your desire is too strong right now. You haven’t learned to control it young one and instead are allowing it to control you. That path can only grant you so much power before you lose yourself.”
Under Milly’s red gaze, Olaf once again removed the block of iron from the forge and began to hammer it. Red sparks flew under each blow, and the iron began to take shape into a blade.
“See here,” Olaf gestured with his red, “You are like this iron; hot and unmolded. This hot piece of iron can easily kill someone as it is, but . . .” Olaf used the tongs to transfer the metal to a nearby trough of water. The sizzling steam turned the red iron into a piece of madly formed metal.
“Fire cannot last forever, and neither can pure desire,” Olaf finished, “In order for your power to grow, you must use the flames of your passion to mold your mind and body into a weapon capable of following and controlling your desires. Only then will you truly be whole not only as a person, but also as a warrior.”
When he ended his sermon, Olaf opened his palm, revealing the seven magic throwing daggers. Milly and Rowen blinked in shock, for the two daggers in Milly’s hand had somehow ended up in Olaf’s hand without either of them noticing. The red glow disappeared from Milly’s eyes, replaced by fear and uncertainty.
“Do no panic young ones,” Olaf smiled softly, “I merely want to examine them the way a blacksmith can. I shall return them shortly.”
Olaf gave the daggers a thorough examination with his eye, “Yes, I see the problem. This is a splendid magical weapon, but your body is currently unable to properly use it. Hmm, nothing a little work won’t fix.”
Olaf raised his eyes to meet Milly’s, “Young Milly, if you’ll allow me a day, I will improve your daggers so they grow with you rather than overwhelm you. While you won’t be able to call the same level of magic as before, you’re control will improve and allow you to do more complicated feats.”
Milly, looking and feeling calmer than she had in a long time, pursed her lips in thought. “But I’ll need as much power as I can grasp in the coming days. I’d rather survive now so I can worry about the future later.”
Rowen stared at Milly in surprise. Milly grinned at him,” What’s wrong Rowen? Not used to seeing me calm, collected, and shy? Does that make you like me more?” she teased.
Rowen’s eyebrow twitched as Olaf chuckled. “With or without the dagger, you will always be you. Still, I think you should take Olaf’s offer because nothing good ever comes from an unstable foundation.”
“Wise words youngling,” Olaf complimented Rowen, “So, do we have a deal young Milly?”
Sighing, Milly reluctantly nodded her consent.
“Good,” Olaf smiled, “Come back tomorrow at lunch, and I shall have your daggers waiting. If you both would like, I can also add a small enchantment to any weapons you have on you. Enough to say, deal with any random slimes appearing in your future?”
Rowen squinted at Olaf, still unsure of the man’s intentions. However, he and Milly both bowed their heads in thanks and handed over their simple daggers.
“After you and your friend have graduated into true apprentice mages, seek me out again. I will have a gift waiting for you.”
With that last word from Olaf, the two left the forge and headed home. Olaf chuckled as he watched the duo walk out of the compound. “They are both still a bit green, but his tempering is coming along and her mind is stabilizing,” he murmured to himself, “little ones, as your more learned adult, allow me to wish you well as the threads of fate guide you down this path. In the days to come, I hope you both cling to your hopes and dreams and survive this ordeal. May you find stability in each other.”
A tiny pinprick of white of light shined down from the sky.